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As need increases, funding for SNAP decreases

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As the Minnesota Nutritious Food Coalition was celebrating its first year of working to increase participation in the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal government was in the midst of plans to decrease funds that support the educational component of SNAP.

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More than 500,000 Minnesotans receive nutrition assistance benefits each month. The federally funded SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps, helps people with low incomes get the food they need to live.

In 2012, there were 1,401 households receiving SNAP benefits in Douglas County at year's end. A total of 990 children and 2,780 adults in the county were aided by SNAP support. A year prior, 3,063 Douglas County residents were eligible for SNAP - 8 percent of the county's population.

"The average payment per person is about $100 per month," said Douglas County Social Services Director Mike Woods.

Congress removed approximately $110 million from SNAP's educational component as part of negotiations to keep the dairy industry's price support system from expiring. The amount Minnesota is bracing to absorb equals about a $2.6 million cut, approximately 28 percent, from a $9.7 million grant. A majority of that goes to the University of Minnesota Extension for nutrition education, part of it goes to the Chippewa tribe. States have not yet received final word on the size of the cuts.

Extension educators visit schools, food shelves and senior centers where the income eligibility rate for SNAP is highest, to educate people on making healthy food choices.

"Youth are definitely making a lot of the food choices," said Aimee Viniard-Weideman, assistant dean and director of community and public relations for the University of Minnesota Extension. "Many of them even prepare meals at home."

Classes are held at food shelves on how to prepare foods a person may not be familiar with but are nutritious, cost effective and available through the food shelf. Tips are shared on how to make food dollars stretch longer.

Viniard-Weideman gave an example of dried beans. A lot of Minnesotans don't know how to soak them, get them ready to cook or how to season beans.

"If you're a family who eats meat, you'll learn how you might stretch meat by putting it into a dish with beans and other items," Viniard-Weideman added.

All courses are offered on a volunteer basis; it is not a requirement to receive SNAP. Participants have exhibited progress of the extension program through surveys, evaluations, knowledge tests and behavior change assessments, Viniard-Weideman said.

"We know from national research that every dollar that is spent on nutrition education results in more than $10 in healthcare savings," Viniard-Weideman explained. "That's a direct savings to the state." Many people who received SNAP benefits also receive state-funded health care.

The federal fiscal year began in October.

"It's very unusual to get word of a cut like this while you're mid year," Viniard-Weideman said. The Extension was able to pull funds together to cover the remainder of the fiscal year because the SNAP education program is an important part of the school's mission, but if the cuts continue, it may have to make further adjustments to continue the program.

"It's so vital to their health and well being to be able to teach them how to stretch their food dollars because their resources are so limited," Viniard-Weideman said.

Every $1 in SNAP benefits equals $1.73 in economic activity, according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS). Thirty-two percent of SNAP cases have income reported from work.

"Access to nutritious, healthy food is essential for Minnesotans to live full and productive lives," said Minnesota DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson in a release. "Well-nourished children do better in school, employees take fewer sick days and seniors can remain independent longer when they have access to the food they need."

During the Minnesota Nutritious Food Coalition's first year, 65,700 households either returned to SNAP after an absence of more than one year or were new enrollees. A campaign to increase participation and meal distribution included partnerships with General Mills, Hunger Solutions Minnesota and Hunger-Free Minnesota combined with Meals on Wheels and The Emergency Foodshelf Network.

In October 2012, the formula used to calculate standard income and expense deductions, which determine eligibility for SNAP benefits, was reformatted. Cost-of-living adjustments and changes in economic conditions were taken into consideration. These changes increased the number of people eligible for the benefit. The federal poverty guideline was adjusted in 2010, which also increased the pool of Minnesotans eligible for SNAP.

"There is a difference between the number of people who are eligible and the number of people who have signed up for SNAP benefits," Viniard-Weideman said.

The DHS reported that SNAP caseloads are at historic highs both in the state and nationwide, yet only 65 percent of eligible Minnesotans receive SNAP benefits. Douglas County's participation rate for people in poverty has substantially increased since 2005. The percentage in 2005 was 23.9 and steadily grew to 61.6 percent in 2011. The number jumped from 30.4 percent in 2008 to 40.5 in 2009 and 51.4 in 2010.

A majority of adults with children receiving SNAP, 74 percent, are high school graduates. Adults without dependents on average used SNAP benefits for less than 22 months to bridge a gap. Thirty-eight percent of those adults relied on the benefit for a year or less.

In September, a farm bill that funds SNAP food benefits is slated to expire.

FOOD STAMPS TO 'SNAP'

The government-aided monthly food stipend has undergone many changes since its inception.

1964 - The Food stamp Act of 1964 was introduced by Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman, a Minnesotan, to strengthen the agricultural economy and increase nutrition in low-income households. People were required to purchase food stamps.

1977 - The Food Stamp Act of 1977 eliminated the purchase requirement and set income guidelines.

1996 - States began adopting Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) to replace food stamps.

2002 - Paper food stamps are eliminated completely.

2008 - The Farm Bill of 2008 changed the name from Food Stamps to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

2010 - Asset limits were eliminated and gross income limit for SNAP eligibility increased from 130 percent of the federal poverty guideline to 165 percent.

$735,811,930 in SNAP benefits were issued between October 2011 and September 2012.

Information provided by the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

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